FIFA tackling unique problem at 2026 World Cup: Natural grass in 5 indoor stadiums

The last time the United States hosted the FIFA men’s World Cup, 30 years ago this summer, the tournament shattered attendance records that stand to this day. USA ’94 also made history in at least one other way, when the Pontiac Silverdome in suburban Detroit became the first stadium to stage a World Cup match indoors.

Just four other indoor stadiums have followed in the three decades since: two each on the men’s and women’s sides. That makes the 2026 World Cup, which will be held across the U.S., Canada and Mexico, uncharted territory. No less than five of the 16 venues selected to host 104 matches over 39 days have fixed or retractable roofs. And because FIFA now requires all World Cup matches to be played on natural grass, that presents a significant challenge.

Pontiac hosted fewer games — four — than any other host city back in 1994, for fairly obvious reasons. “In a domed environment, Mother Nature can’t get in natural sunlight, rain, air, etc. — all the things a green plant needs,” Alan Ferguson, FIFA’s chief field czar, told FOX Sports in a phone interview. “It’s how we go about replicating that.”

Ferguson was speaking from Knoxville, Tennessee, where last week he presented to delegates representing all 16 host cities for 2026 the initial findings of a seven-figure research project commissioned by global soccer’s governing body to determine how best to ensure that elite-level fields can survive the five-week plus tournament. 

That has never been attempted before. Slapping down temporary grass fields in indoor venues has been done countless times since the Silverdome made history; just last month, AT&T Stadium outside Dallas installed a natural turf surface for the Concacaf Nations League finals. But there’s a big difference between playing a few matches over a long weekend and hosting nine World Cup games — including a semifinal — over a month-plus, as “Jerry World” will do two years from now.

“What you saw in Dallas recently, it’s a quick solution for one or two games,” Ferguson said. “The World Cup is played over a much longer period of time. The grass has to have the ability to recover between games.”

The early research, carried out jointly by the University of Tennessee and Michigan State University, is encouraging. Much has changed in the natural turf world since 1994, and the U.S. remains on the cutting edge; all the fields used for the 2022 World Cup were grown in Arizona before being shipped to Qatar. “Our whole industry has changed beyond all recognition,” Ferguson said. “We have things available to us now that we didn’t have 30 years ago.”

Under FIFA regulations, all fields must now be of the hybrid variety, where artificial fibers are woven into the grass to create a sturdier surface. Grow lamps can suitably mimic natural sunlight. “We’ve managed to work out how we’re going to get it irrigated, to get it to grow in the dark, using the latest technology,” said Ferguson, a Scotland native who oversaw the field at London’s famed Wembley Stadium before joining FIFA as its senior pitch management manager in 2018.

Reducing the depth of the field and the sand and soil mix that lies on the concrete floor underneath also helps. While a traditional pitch is about 16 inches deep, the indoor venues in 2026 will use fields more than half as shallow. The idea is that all 16 fields used in 2026 will look, feel and play almost identically, regardless of climate, what specific type of grass is laid, or whether it’s under a ceiling or open sky.

Some of the 11 open-air venues picked for the next World Cup present challenges, too. Three of those NFL arenas — Lumen Field in Seattle, Gillette Stadium near Boston and MetLife Stadium just outside New York City, the site of the 2026 final — use artificial turf for gridiron games. Even without 300-pound linemen trampling the sod, the cavernous nature of those facilities creates shadows that prevent the playing field from getting enough sun to sustain high-quality natural grass. In 2016, MetLife’s hastily installed turf was in terrible shape by the time the Copa América Centenario final between Argentina and Chile rolled around.

But lessons have been learned in the eight years that have passed since. FIFA groundskeepers will also have significantly more lead time to install its World Cup fields, in New Jersey and across the continent. “I’m reasonably relaxed about where we are” with MetLife, Ferguson said. “That’s probably one of the ones we’re happier about.”

The 82,000-seat MetLife is one of several stadiums that will remove corner seating to accommodate the minimum 75-yard-wide fields FIFA mandates for World Cup games.

The prep work isn’t limited just to the stadiums. “The training sites are probably as important, if not more important, because the base camps are where the teams will make their homes for however long they’re in the tournament,” Ferguson said. “They have to replicate, as far as reasonably practical, the surfaces in the stadiums, and they will be subjected the same high-level delivery. It’s the same approach right across the board.”

Two years out, the clock is ticking ever louder.

“We know what a good pitch looks like,” Ferguson said. “Everybody understands what has to be done. We’re working through every issue bit by bit.

“We’re getting pretty close,” he added. “But we’ve got a bit of work still to go.”

Doug McIntyre is a soccer writer for FOX Sports. Before joining FOX Sports in 2021, he was a staff writer with ESPN and Yahoo Sports and he has covered United Statesmen’s and women’s national teams at multiple FIFA World Cups. Follow him on Twitter @ByDougMcIntyre.


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